Google’s announcement that it’s killing off Google Reader, the company’s beloved, if not wildly popular, tool for consuming RSS feeds, was met with outrage from journalists and other, largely American nerds who rely on it to efficiently churn through blogs and other websites. But the real tragedy is likely to be felt in countries like Iran, where Google Reader is used to evade government censorship.
RSS readers take raw feeds of data—headline, text, timestamp, etc.—and display that information in a stripped-down interface along with many other feeds, which is what makes them so efficient. (Here is the RSS feed for Quartz.) Less obvious is how many RSS readers, including Google’s, serve as anti-censorship tools for people living under oppressive regimes. That’s because it’s actually Google’s servers, located in the US or another country with uncensored internet, that accesses each feed. So a web user in Iran just needs access to google.com/reader in order to read websites that would otherwise be blocked.
And, indeed, Google Reader has long been accessible in Iran, where it is the most popular RSS reader. Iran would probably have to block all of Google and its many popular services in order to keep its citizens from using Reader. YouTube, by contrast, is easier to censor, though it is also owned by Google, because the video site is located on its own domain, youtube.com. Reader is also harder, though not impossible, to block because it uses more secure technology known as HTTPS.
There are many alternatives to Google Reader, but switching is a more complicated prospect for Iranians. Many RSS readers do work like Google’s—with the service’s own servers, rather than the user’s, fetching new data from across the web—but those would be much easier to block, if they gained any traction, without the protection afforded by the popularity of Google’s other services.
The Iranian government has occasionally blocked all of Google, most recently in September 2012, but always for a limited time. It’s not clear if Iran’s move toward a domestic version of the internet will affect access to google.com. Google also hasn’t said what it might do with the Google Feed API, which is a service for programmers to access RSS feeds, usually for display on other websites. If it sticks around, the Google Feed API would potentially allow someone to build a service that replicates some of Google Reader’s core features and still rely on Google’s domain to do it.
Iranian bloggers were vocal opponents of the changes Google made to Reader in 2011, when the ability to share individual stories with other users was removed. The shared items of certain heavily followed Iranians served as de facto newspapers free from the government’s censorship regime, gaining popularity after the 2009 elections led to uprisings in Iran. The next presidential election is this June.
“Such bad luck!” wrote Vahid HT, an Iranian, on Google+ today. “What does the internet without Google Reader look like?…What harm will come to the online world?” Another person wrote in response, “Really what Google is thinking is that all revolutionary ideas do not fit with their absurd ideas.”